They always said Oleksandr Usyk’s stablemate Vasyl Lomachenko was ‘The Matrix’ but as Saturday night’s main event draws closer, there are many who expect Anthony Joshua to be bewildered, even if only for a while, by the Ukrainian heavyweight contender.
Usyk is unbeaten in 18 fights as a pro and he’s no stranger to boxing on the road, having scalped Americans in America, Poles in Poland, Germans in Germany, Russians in Russia and Latvians in Latvia.
He’s also got two big professional wins in the UK, over Tony Bellew in his last fight at cruiserweight and against Derek Chisora in his second contest at heavyweight.
The impressive 34-year-old southpaw, however, is considerably smaller and he’s yet to convince as a heavyweight.
Sure, fights are not just about physical metrics but sometimes they sure do help.
Joshua is not just a big man, but he’s strong, athletic and a terrific puncher. He has stopped or knocked out 22 of his 24 victims and allied to that he’s shown clear improvements as a fighter, adding new facets to his game under trainer Robert McCracken. He’s an accurate banger who wastes precious little. He can jab and move or ram that left into your face as though it’s a telegraph pole. He can step in with straight shots or hooks and his improved movement has made him a far harder target than when he opted to slug it out – unsuccessfully – against Andy Ruiz when his first reign as world heavyweight champion came to an abrupt halt on his US debut at Madison Square Garden.
He still has a fighter’s instinct, though. McCracken, one of the best in the game, hasn’t been able to iron that out of him and it’s one of the things that makes Joshua compelling.
Whatever was said between him and Kubrat Pulev in the build-up to their fight brought out the harsher, predatory side of AJ in December when Joshua, who was winning the fight, seemed to take unnecessary risks in order to inflict more damage. It was a cold and cruel side of Joshua, one who stuck his tongue out while hammering away, maliciously brutalising Pulev into three knockdowns and a ninth-round stoppage.
If Usyk presses the same buttons Pulev did, can Joshua maintain his discipline in a hard fight? Sure, he did it in the Andy Ruiz rematch but he was in control from the get-go then.
That said, if Usyk comes to have a scrap with Joshua, he could be blown away. Derek Chisora didn’t find Usyk difficult to find and that October 2020 fight was competitive.
Strategy will be crucial. Will Joshua try to implement his size and strength on the front foot or will he use his athleticism and move, trying to walk Usyk onto a big shot?
Will Usyk be aggressive, as he was against Chisora, or accept the smaller man role of being elusive, making the bigger man work while trying to ping AJ with short shots on the inside and moving to safety?
If the latter happens, does Joshua have 12 rounds in him of pursuing someone he’s finding hard to hit while taking damage as he tries to score his own points?
Can Usyk work the body, thus taking Joshua’s improved footwork away?
What if Joshua can manhandle Usyk in the clinches makes the challenger hesitant to get inside?
Then there’s Joshua’s right uppercut. He landed it hard and often against Pulev and, of course, he landed one that will echo through the annuls of heavyweight history to definitely turn the tide in his coming-of-age win against Wladimir Klitschko.
That shot, against an Usyk he will be coming in low and looking to score in close, could be the difference-maker. It’s an underrated yet risky tool but Joshua seems unafraid to use it.
The closer the fight has become, the more people seem to have sided with Usyk – certainly in the trade.
He undoubtedly presents Joshua with a whole new set of challenges and while much of the talk going in to the first Ruiz fight for Joshua was centred around Fury and Wilder (and Jarrell Miller), the focus here in London has been on Usyk and only Usyk. The visitor is a real threat and sure, he’s the smaller man, but he’s not a small man and there’s a better-than-average chance that he uses his size to give him the angles he wants to carve openings out, trying to bedazzle Joshua with combinations that probably aren’t stiff enough to flatten the champion but are heavy and sharp enough to earn his respect and increase his reluctance to go looking for Usyk.
It’s a wonderfully poised fight, made all the more intriguing by the reasoning that any one of a number of scenarios are completely plausible.
“People are going to remember this fight,” pledged Usyk.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Joshua. “It’s going to be lively. It’s going to be a tough night’s work.”
There is a consensus that Joshua wins early and Usyk wins late, while the Ukrainian will have trouble winning convincingly enough on points to get a decision.
And things can get messy between orthodox and southpaw fighters as they tussle for dominance. Let’s hope we don’t have an early finish for a headclash as we did in the most recent stadium clash, when Josh Warrington and Mauricio Lara couldn’t settle their differences in Headingly last month.
I think Usyk can win rounds but he will do so at a cost that he can’t keep paying throughout the fight and I can see Joshua stopping him inside 10 enthralling rounds.
Then, of course, will come the post-fight presser when attention will no doubt instantly turn to October 9 and the third fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, both who would present and entirely different matrix for Joshua.